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Walks Between Winds

Copyright © Frank O. Dodge.   All rights reserved.


Feel free to call me a liar.  You won't be the first.  There are times when I am tempted to apply the epithet to myself, then I remember that I was there and saw it all.



Naples back in late 1943 was not a place you wanted to be, given a choice.  The invasion at Salerno, about forty miles south, had been accomplished some three-four weeks before.  The front lines had moved about twenty miles north of Naples, and the ground fighting was still hot and heavy.  Thousands of tons of allied shipping poured into Naples with war materials to supply our forces.  Each of these merchant ships was armed and carried a Navy gun crew.  I was one of these gunners.  For obvious reasons  the Luftwaffe paid us regular visits, and their calling cards fell far short of being valentines.

I have to give you a picture so you can follow what comes next.  The inner harbor was protected by a breakwater . . . a wall of concrete.  Our merchant ships couldn't tie up at the piers inside because the Germans, before they left, had scuttled vessels alongside all but two or three of the piers, leaving ships lying on their sides or settled upright on the bottom.

As a result, we had to Med-moor to the breakwater . . . that is, you dropped your anchors, backed up to the wall and sent over mooring lines from your stern to the mole.  The upshot was that a couple score of our ships were lined up in a row like those ducks in that shooting gallery you hear so much about.  Imagine a skinny sow with a litter of sucklings nosed into her concrete belly.

To make matters even more interesting, Mount Vesuvius was in eruption at the time, making a jim-dandy beacon for the Luftwaffe.  I can almost hear the officer briefing the German pilots: "Go to Vesuvius and turn right, you can't miss 'em . . . ."

And every evening just after dark they did just that.  You haven't attended a party until you've stood on the flying bridge of a Liberty ship, strapped into a twenty millimeter antiaircraft gun, and watched the Stukkas, skipping along at masthead altitude, bathed in searchlights, leaving a trail of huge red roses blossoming behind them, and praying that you'll be somewhere in between bombs.  You have my word for it that the black crosses on the wings of a diving Stukka are somewhere around a hundred feet across.

 

What I've said so far is pretty much standard for the receiving end of a low-level bombing run, but here's where it turns weird.



One member of our gun crew was an Indian guy.  One of the Midwestern tribes, I think.  His white-man name was Walker B. Winds, but when you stretched out the 'B' it translated to 'Walker Between Winds'.

"My father and my grandfather are Shamans," Walker told us during watches in the gun tub.

"What's a Shaman?" we wanted to know.

Walker grinned.  "You ignorant palefaces call them 'witch doctors'," he said, "but Shamans are the healers and keepers of tribal history . . . and walkers between winds.  That's why my old man named me what he did, 'Walker Between Winds'."

"What do you mean, a walker between the winds?"

It sounded like so much chicken milk, but something about our young shipmate's bearing stirred a strange feeling of respect in us.

"Are you a Shaman, too?"

"Yes."

Jennings, the kid from Brooklyn, laughed and said sarcastically, "And I guess you can walk between the winds, too."

Walker smiled.  "Yes."

Yeah, sure.

Anyway, it passed the long hours of watch standing.

But it was all brought back to me the third night of Luftwaffe valentines.

One important thing I neglected to tell you.  Upon entering the port of Naples, we had been informed that the harbor defense was under control of the British, who had thirty-five hundred ack-ack guns emplaced, and since the barrage was centrally controlled they did not want the merchant ships firing willy-nilly and buggering up the detail.  We had orders not to fire, but to leave the defense to the Limeys.  However, we went to General Quarters at every alarm and manned the guns just the same, for some reason known only to God and the peculiarly unfathomable thinking of our Gunnery Officer.

Which meant we stayed exposed to falling shrapnel for one to two hours every evening for no apparent reason.  There were four 20mm mounts on the flying bridge and mine was the forward portside tub.

On the first night, we heard what we thought to be a school of fish flittering in the water alongside.  Then those fish began to flitter on the deck with harsh metallic clangings no fish ever made.  Next morning we picked up chunks of shrapnel from finger-size to the size of both your doubled fists.  Some fun.  The explanation is simple.  When thirty-five hundred ack-ack guns throw a few hundred tons of exploding metal into the air, it has to come down.

To get back to that third night.  Walker Winds was loader on the 20mm.  I was shooter, and Bill Thompson was telephone talker.  Walker got a little ticked off at the rain of jagged metal falling all around us and decided to do something about it.  "It's those damned bombers," he said.  "No bombers, no ack-ack.  No ack-ack, no falling shrapnel.  I gotta get rid of those damned bombers."

I didn't know what it was he had in mind, but I'd seen him Rain-Dance three times.  Twice it rained, and once it snowed.  Walker had looked a little sheepish about that snow.  "I guess I must have made a mis-step there," he apologized.

Well, if he could make it rain, why not stop the shrapnel?

We were crouched down in the gun tub while the Stukkas dipped and darted and the sky rained steel rain.  Walker removed the small wash leather pouch he carried on a thong around his neck.  He called it his 'medicine bag'.  Then he said something really weird.  "To walk between the winds you have to look around the edge of reality to the paths between space.  There is where the spirits of my ancestors walk the trails of time.  I will walk with them."

Bill and I were holding back giggles, but at least the mumbo-jumbo was taking our minds off the bombs.  We stopped laughing quick.

Walker was just a young kid, but as he settled himself cross-legged on the deck, dignity gathered around him like a blanket, and he suddenly seemed very old and wise.  He took several articles from his medicine bag and laid them in a row in front of him.  Reaching inside his shirt he brought out two eagle feathers and laid them beside the other stuff.  Walker dipped his forefinger into a tiny pot of red paint and rapidly sketched designs on his face, all the time murmuring a rising and falling chant.  He seemed to have withdrawn to a private place that shut out the sounds of screaming engines, falling bombs and the god-awful roar of the antiaircraft guns that poured tracer bullets aloft like a reversed waterfall of fire.

The sound of his chanting voice was barely audible above the uproar.  Bill and I were gripped by a feeling of tension that seemed to pervade the air in the little gun mount.  This tension grew.  Walker took a cigarette lighter from his pocket and lit it, placing it before him like a tiny campfire.  He sprinkled it with a pinch of some powder from his medicine bag, and little puffs of colored sparks wafted skyward.  His chant grew louder as he picked up the two feathers and moved them in mystic passes over the flickering lighter.

Bill and I stared as Walker's form seemed to waver, becoming hard for our vision to focus on.  There was a . . . shifting . . . and before our eyes our young shipmate aged, and we saw a wrinkled old man wrapped in a blanket.

Dignity cloaked him like a visible presence.  The chanting rose, becoming fierce and intense.  A . . . power . . .  flowed from him so strongly we could feel it.  The old man raised his arms, pointing at the diving Stukkas.  I looked up.

I've mentioned that the bombers were at masthead level, low enough to see the pilots' faces.  The next one that flew over had an Indian warrior in warbonnet and paint standing on the wing, bending into the cockpit and chopping with a tomahawk.  Okay, you don't believe me.  I don't blame you . . . but the plane went into a wing-over and crashed into the water.  So did the next one, and the one after that.

Suddenly there was Walker, back in the gun tub, panting, and with a satisfied look on his face.  "Damn Krauts.  That'll teach 'em."

We had no raids for the next two nights.

As it turned out, no one but Bill and I had seen . . . what we had seen . . . and after the Gunnery Officer threatened to have the two of us committed, we stopped telling anybody.

Walker Between Winds just smiled.
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